The Australian Open was a slow burner for the first four days, with few surprises or exciting matches, but by last night the tournament was ablaze. Even on a day when rain restricted play to the two courts with roofs, a succession of dramatic contests ended in appropriate fashion when Lleyton Hewitt beat Marcos Baghdatis 4-6 7-5 7-5 6-7 6-3 in a thriller that ended at 4.34 in the morning, the latest finish in Grand Slam history.
The day's earlier headlines had featured a narrow escape for Roger Federer after a mara-thon against Janko Tipsarevic, James Blake's comeback from two sets down to beat Sébastien Grosjean and the exit of Svetlana Kuznetsova, the women's No 2 seed, at the hands of Agnieszka Radwanska.
A late finish was always likely after Venus Williams and Sania Mirza opposed moves to postpone their match – which the American won in straight sets – at the start of a night session delayed by Federer's lengthy encounter. Baghdatis, the beaten 2006 finalist, looked on his way out after needing treatment to an ankle injury at the start of the third set, but having trailed 5-1 in the fourth he saved a match point at 5-2 and came back from 4-2 down in the tie-break. By this stage the match had beaten last year's record finish, when Andreas Seppi beat Bobby Reynolds at 3.34 in the morning.
There were still several thousand fans to watch the Australian No 1 break serve to take a decisive lead at 3-2 in the final set. Even when Baghdatis trailed 0-40 at 3-5 there was more drama as the Cypriot levelled to deuce, but moments later Hewitt hit a forehand winner to convert his fifth match point.
As Baghdatis left in tears, Hewitt described it as "one of my best wins mentally". He said he was "very proud", though whether finishing less than two hours before sunrise was any way to prepare for a fourth-round meeting tomorrow with Novak Djokovic is another matter.
With his black-rimmed glasses, Tipsarevic is a dead ringer for Clark Kent, but in men's tennis there is only one Superman. Despite playing the match of his life, the 23-year-old world No 49 could not find a way past Federer, who was taken to the brink before winning 6-7 7-6 5-7 6-1 10-8 after four-and-a-half hours. Federer has not gone out of a Grand Slam event in the third round since losing to Gustavo Kuerten in Paris four years ago – of the 14 since, he has won 10 – but for long periods an early exit looked likely.
Tipsarevic is one of the game's more thoughtful individuals. The Serb is reading Dostoevsky's The Idiot and has a quotation by the Russian novelist ("Beauty will save the world") tattooed on one arm in Japanese.
"I was going to have it done in Russian but it didn't look good," he explained.
Federer, who said he was not reading a book at the moment because he had "homework to do", looked vulnerable. The Swiss made frequent mistakes and converted only five of his 21 break points.
Tipsarevic, whose forehand delivered a succession of winners, took the first tie-break 7-5 after Federer left a ball that dropped inside the line. Federerwon the second 7-1 but paid the price in the third set for missing two set points at 5-4. The defending champion ran away with the fourth set, held his nerve in the fifth and made the final break to lead 9-8.
"I missed so many opportunities in the first three sets," Federer said. "I just couldn't play the way I normally play on those big points. I didn't feel great, but I fought hard."